The facts on the Saudi flights


Geraldine Sealey
June 24, 2004 1:58AM (UTC)

We were lucky enough to see Fahrenheit 9/11 in Manhattan today. Michael Moore's movie, too powerful to miss, is a relentless condemnation of George W. Bush from the Florida recount to Iraq. One of Moore's key indictments of Bush is his family's cozy relationship with the Saudis, and he zeroes in on White House-approved flights of Saudis, including Osama bin Laden's relatives, out of the United States in the days after 9/11. On this last point, Moore cites the investigative work of Craig Unger, author of House of Bush, House of Saud.

As anyone watching The O'Reilly Factor on Monday night knows, the right-wing attack on Moore and his sources, including Unger, has already begun. Bill O'Reilly's guest was Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, who discussed an article he wrote which O'Reilly claims "seemingly contradicts any wrongdoing in the matter by the Bush administration."

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From the transcript:

ISIKOFF: Moore has the author Craig Unger on the film saying that the flights took place during a period that federal airspace was shut down and nobody else could fly, and that the people on the flights were never interviewed by the FBI.

That -- both of those things do not appear to be true. The flights commenced on September 14, as the ban on flying after September 11 was lifted. And that there were a lot of -- a number of flights. The one that seems to have gotten the most attention, that gets the most attention in the movie is the flight that relates to members of the bin Laden family. I think there was something like 26 people on those flights. And according to the September 11th Commission, 22 of them were interviewed.

O'REILLY: Yes...

ISIKOFF: And everybody on the flights...

O'REILLY: Right.

ISIKOFF: ...were screened, and that none were found to have any links.

O'REILLY: So according to the 9/11 Commission, according to the FBI's own direct testimony, there was no wrongdoing in letting these flights go out. And they didn't go out with any special privilege. And the FBI did vet them. And that's pretty much...

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ISIKOFF: Well, I don't know that I want to endorse everything you just said there about -- you know, certainly, you know, there does seem to have been some high level contacts. There are...

O'REILLY: Well, sure, there would be, of course.

ISIKOFF: ...some people who are a little uneasy about these flights. But on the specific charges of whether or not, no -- I mean, Moore presents it in the movie as though nobody was interviewed in the flights.

O'REILLY: Right.

ISIKOFF: In fact, that's exactly what Craig Unger, the author of the book "House of Saud" says in the film. And you know, the findings of the 9/11 Commission just directly contradict that.

O'REILLY: OK. Well, I know there will be some people who believe Michael Moore over the commission, but we don't need to deal with those people.

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Later, O'Reilly says, "We don't want to let the facts get in the way of Michael's movie."

Well, we wouldn't want the facts to get in the way of The Factor. War Room called author Craig Unger today and asked him about this. Unger says he spoke with Isikoff while he was reporting the Newsweek piece, yet the piece still contained mistakes -- the same ones he repeated on Fox News.

"These are mistakes he made knowingly. He knows better," Unger said.

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Isikoff says the Saudi flights started on Sept. 14. But as Unger reported in House of Bush, House of Saud, the first flight took place on Sept. 13, as commercial aviation was slowly starting up again but still restricted. Private flights were still banned. The St. Petersburg Times reported last week that Tampa International Airport has finally, after three years of denials from White House, aviation and law enforcement officials, admitted the flight took place. The flight in question carried Saudis from Tampa to Lexington, Ky., and was approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration. "If as Isikoff suggests, these flights were legitimate, why was it discussed in the White House?" Unger said.

Isikoff also mischaracterizes what Unger says in the film about FBI interviews of the fleeing bin Ladens. This one is easy to check. In the movie, Moore sums up the Saudi evacuation process by saying: "So a little interview, check the passport, what else?" he asks. "Nothing," Unger replied.

Unger tells War Room, "I never say they were not interviewed. What I do say is this: Given that 48 hours earlier, 3,000 people had just been murdered, this was a time for a serious massive criminal investigation to begin and it didn't happen. Instead, relatively speaking, Saudis were given privileges Americans were not allowed."

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Unger continues: "You have to wonder why Michael Isikoff is trying to defend an administration that seemed to avoid launching such a really rigorous investigation at that point."

Unger has written a letter to Newsweek complaining about Isikoff's story, and published it on his Web site. "I think it's interesting they start to attack me now," he says, "presumably they expect the movie to have an impact."


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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